Canada's Original Think Tank

On calls to abolish the Senate

On calls to abolish the Senate

On calls to abolish the Senate

Published on 13 September 2013
Blog by Senator Grant Mitchell

Recent calls to abolish the Senate are primarily a reaction to the spending issues of four senators (out of a Senate of 105 seats with 100 or so actually filled right now).

Surely, we would want to base a decision of that magnitude on something more than the behaviour of four members. At the very least, prudent decision-making would demand some kind of structured assessment of what the role of the Senate actually is and of how well it has performed that role, or not. Canadians are owed some baseline of information, historical consideration, and other analysis to help them assess this decision; particularly if there were to be a referendum on it.

Maybe it’s the Senate’s mantra of ‘sober second thought’ that brings me to this conclusion, but this step seems to have been forgotten in the fury of the reaction. We all know that making decisions in the heat of the moment can be problematic — ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ comes to mind. Would we really want to make this decision based on the past months of supercharged headlines in this hyper-ideological, hyper-partisan, anti-government context?

First Question: Why do we have a Senate in the first place?

We have a Senate because smaller provinces, Quebec, and the Francophone minority were not going to join Confederation without reassurances that their interests would be protected. We would not have Canada today but for the creation of the Senate.

Second Question: What does it do?

The Senate essentially does two things:

1. It reviews all legislation and every budget. Every bill has to be passed by both the Senate and the House of Commons.

In each House, bills travel the same course, through three readings and the committee review stage. The Senate can assess legislation in its less partisan environment and often takes more time than the House of Commons to do so. Over the years, the Senate has made many amendments to government legislation and a huge number have been accepted by appreciative governments. Being that the Senate is unelected, it has only outright defeated government legislation six times since 1945.

2. The Senate undertakes, through its committees (there are 17 standing committees), special studies ranging from mental health; to cyber-bullying; to hydrocarbon transportation safety; to cross-border shopping; to sexual harassment in the RCMP.

Once again, the Senate conducts its studies in a less partisan environment. It undertakes studies of important issues and problems that might be neglected by the House because they do not have political (electoral) currency, or because partisan divides prevent agreement on doing a study. Anyone who has ever appeared as a witness before both House of Commons and Senate committees will tell you that the experience in the latter is far more productive.

Because senators hold their seats for an average of 11 years, compared to 6 for MPs, they can develop an issue over a longer period, and some issues require that. You don’t fix a cultural problem in the RCMP, for example, in 2 years. Canada’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan went on for over ten years. It was a Senate Defence Committee report that provided the impetus for the military to get badly needed tanks to help them fight that war.

The argument to abolish the Senate is rooted in the idea that it has no legitimacy because it is unelected. Of course it can be said that, in the current political context, even elected political institutions have almost no credibility either, particularly after thirty years of right-wing, anti-government rhetoric.

At the very least, if the Senate’s work has been credible and, if it has had a positive impact on the course this country has forged, then that would lend the Senate some measure of credibility. Of course, Canadians cannot assess this because this analysis has not been done in any kind of comprehensive way that has been communicated to them.